Friday, August 17, 2018
Genealogy: Leading Toward Reconciliation
When I teach genealogy workshops, I often have a class member come in who eventually realizes she is about to face researching a part of her family's story with which she is not comfortable reviewing. When we begin our quest to discover our family history, it seems we have a positive mindset, perhaps with dreams of discovering famous—or at least rich!—ancestors or stories of adventure or travel from far-flung places.
It is only later that that "oh, yeah" sense of dread hits some of us—that remembrance of the episodes in our family history we'd rather had never happened.
For some, those dark episodes are distant memories—say, of our grandparents' struggles—but for others the pain is buried just below the surface. I'm not sure why people don't think of those scenarios when they leap to learn about their family's history, but eventually, they do recall, and struggle with the realization of what they know lies ahead for them.
It's then that they face a decision: they either have to abandon their goal of researching their family history—at least for that line—or choose to reconcile themselves with some unfortunate details. There are some cases in which that latter course of action might even need a coach or professional help to walk through that haunting memory lane—I'm thinking of cases of abuse or abandonment, for instance—but in less extreme situations, there are still difficulties ahead before grappling with a course of action leading toward reconciliation.
I've always seen genealogy as a trigger for this path toward reconciliation. I saw that firsthand, as I worked on my first husband's family tree and heard his stories of how his maternal grandmother cut off his mom and her children, right after the death of his dad. It was painful, and from that moment on through the ensuing decades, not a word was exchanged between households despite the fact that he and his sister grew up only a block away from his grandmother's home. It was only when he was well into adulthood—and well after I had started researching his family story—that he made up his mind to try and open up lines of communication with her again.
This is not an easy step to take when the separation is that extreme. Yet it can be a healing one—even if the other party refuses to budge from their position of isolation. There is a balm in forgiveness, in letting go, in moving beyond a frozen point in life, even if it must be a one-sided journey.
Having begun researching my mother's southern roots, I'm realizing there is much to reconcile myself over, as well. Of course, it is nothing as immediate as having one's own grandparent refuse further contact, but it is a source of discomfort, just as well. As much as I am amazed at how long the grudges over Celestia Holman McClellan Grant Rice were clung to, I realize that genealogy is, once again, beckoning my family toward reconciliation.
Though it isn't the pain of not being able to speak to the relative I can see from my home's front window, hurts from the long past still echo through the ages. I noted with sadness the struggles Celestia's family must have gone through, in the following two generations—or in that next generation that might have been, had any of the grandchildren had children of their own to pass along her family line.
In this case, as far as I can tell, there is no one now alive with whom to reconcile past hurts, whereas, in my former husband's case, there was. While he first took care to ask his own mother's permission before initiating contact—he didn't want to hurt her, or have his attempts misinterpreted—he did go ahead and have that difficult phone conversation. That awkward moment led to a visit with his grandmother, after twenty years, and then a reuniting of the families. I still have the gifts his grandmother gave me during that first visit, tokens to help me remember the value of reconciliation. Considering that grandmother only lived another ten years or so, it was an important time to make a difficult move.
Many of us will, in our research, run across details that will alert us to difficulties that occurred in our family's history. We all have family members who once suffered difficult circumstances, or perhaps even caused them for others in the family. For some of those events, the time is long past any chance of reconciliation for the parties involved. Even so, for those of us who are mindful in our research when we uncover such details, there is a spirit of reconciliation that we can bring along with us in our journey to understand what our family members went through. While I don't know whether it is possible to forgive on someone else's behalf, we can, at least, learn enough from their mistakes to inform, for ourselves, a better choice toward a more healthful path.
One of the ways we can respect our forebears is to appreciate what they are teaching us. It's not an easy path to take, for those of us who stumble upon our ancestors' foibles, but sometimes, it's the best way.